My daughter Katherine has been making a linseed oil and beeswax finish as fast as she possibly can for the last few weeks. And she has been selling out within minutes of posting the jars for sale. As always, I am happy to share any recipes I can so you can make this at home. It’s not difficult. This finish was developed with some advice from Jeff Stafford, a woodworker and finisher in Indianapolis. The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming “The Stick Chair Book,” which will be released this fall.
My favorite clear finish for chairs is a combination of linseed oil, beeswax and a little bit of citrus solvent. It is easy to apply, safe and is a lustrous finish that does not make a film barrier between you and the chair. It is easily renewed or repaired by adding more finish. This finish works for woods of all colors – from maple to walnut. It will add a yellow/orange cast to light-colored woods. So if you want a whiter finish, use soap instead.
You can buy a linseed oil and wax finish from many suppliers. Some of them are reasonably priced; others are extraordinarily expensive. I make my own because it’s easy and cheap, and because I am in control of the entire process.
I buy beeswax from Bulk Apothecary, which sells raw ingredients for people who make personal-care products. A pound of beeswax pellets costs anywhere from $5 to $10, depending on how much you order. A pound of beeswax pellets is about four cups by volume.
You can also get it from beekeepers, which is where I got mine for many years. The upside: it’s usually inexpensive or free. The downside: you need to refine it to get the insect parts out.
The second ingredient is raw linseed oil – not the commercial boiled linseed oil (BLO) at hardware stores. BLO has toxic metallic driers and is not what you want for this recipe. Raw linseed oil is also available from most hardware stores, but sometimes you have to ask them to order it for you. I pay about $10 for 32 ounces (four cups by volume).
People will tell you that raw linseed oil never dries. They are misinformed. Linseed is a drying oil. It takes some time for it to fully cure, but if you apply it correctly you can sit in your chair after a couple hours of applying this finish.
The third ingredient is just a bit of citrus solvent (limonene). The solvent loosens the mixture so it is more of a soft wax (like a lightweight peanut butter) and not a bar of soap. You can buy limonene from a variety of sellers and pay anywhere from $1 per ounce to $13 an ounce. I usually pay about $21 for 16 ounces (32 tablespoons). In total, a batch of this finish costs about $7 to $20 to make and will finish more than 10 chairs.
Linseed Oil & Wax Finish Recipe
2 cups (16 ounces by volume) of raw linseed oil
3/4 cup beeswax
2 tablespoons limonene
I make this finish in a metal quart paint can from the hardware store. Place the metal can on a hotplate, fill the can with the raw linseed oil and turn on the hotplate to between low and medium. Monitor the temperature with a cooking thermometer. Beeswax melts at 151° (F). As soon as the temperature of the oil reaches 151°, pour the beeswax pellets and limonene into the oil. Stir with a stick until the beeswax melts (it takes less than a minute). Turn off the hotplate and remove the mixture from heat.
Allow it to cool. It will become a paste after about an hour of cooling. Seal. You can use it immediately or keep it indefinitely.
Editor’s note: The following is a short excerpt from “The Stick Chair Book,” which will be released this fall. Among all the how-to chapters in my books, I always try to add some chapters that add a psychological or historical dimension to the Part-A-into-Slot-B stuff. This is one of those chapters.
— Christopher Schwarz
With all the woodworking information available for free these days, it seems unlikely that there are still trade secrets amongst us.
But during 15 years of working with professional woodworkers to get their work published in a magazine, I had a lot of conversations that went like this:
“What kind of dye is that?” I’d ask.
“What brand? And what is the name of the color?” I’d ask.
There were also many techniques that were off-limits. The woodworker would say something like: “This is how I teach it, but it is not how I do it.”
These encounters troubled me. I thought all the secrecy stuff had died off with the European guilds. But apparently, I was wrong. In many ways, I sympathized with the professional. He or she was fighting a horde of amateurs who were willing to undercut the prices of the pros. Why should a professional offer aid or comfort to this amateur enemy?
On the other hand, as woodworker W. Patrick Edwards says, “To die with a secret is a sin.” How will the craft progress if we don’t share what we know?
As I plunged deep into chairmaking in the early 2000s, I found myself stymied by some operations relating to compound geometry. The techniques published in the books seemed entirely too awkward compared to what I knew about pre-industrial woodworking. There had to be a simpler way to do these difficult operations.
I took some chairmaking classes. These helped, but I felt like either:
The teacher was also finding his way in the dark.
They didn’t really want to tell me how they did it.
In 2010, I took a Windsor chairmaking course with Mike Dunbar at The Windsor Institute, along with my father and John Hoffman, my business partner. Dunbar, now retired from the school, had built a chairmakers’ terrarium. You started with the class on making a sack-back chair. Then you moved on to other chair forms. If you wanted to make chairs for a living, you could receive training on business, sales and marketing from Mike’s spouse, Susanna. Plus, the Dunbars, their employees and affiliates supplied students with tools, patterns and wood for amateur and professional chairmakers.
It was an impressive operation. Mike and his assistants were there at every step to help you move forward on your chair. The lectures were funny. The workshop itself was gorgeous.
There was one problem, however. The class materials. At the top of the handouts for the class was this warning:
Our students are authorized to use these materials for the making of chairs for personal use and for the making of chairs for sale. We do not authorize the dissemination, reproduction, or publication of these materials in any form and strictly prohibit the use of the materials in the teaching of chairmaking to others.
Again, I felt that same old conflict. There is the urge to protect what you know. But that same urge has caused a lot of knowledge to be stockpiled in the cemeteries.
During my week at The Windsor Institute, I filled a red notebook with all the details of constructing a sack-back chair. I also kept all the handouts from the class in a green folder – both now in my bookcase.
However, I never consult them. I’m almost afraid to read them because they might give me some ideas for making chairs that I am not allowed to pass on to others.
OK, wait a minute. I’ll be right back.
Good news, everyone. I went through the class materials and notes, and I didn’t find anything that was universally mind-blowing. Most of the juicy bits in my notes related to how to build that specific sack-back chair. Whew. I’m glad I don’t build sack backs.
Giving away knowledge has always been a part of my personality. I don’t like secrets. While it would be easy to assign that trait to my time as a newspaper journalist, I know it goes back much further. In fact, I remember the moment I became this way.
In 1977 I was in fourth grade at the local Lutheran school. That year, some of the kids in the higher grades were permitted to dissect sharks for biology class. So, one day when we were called for an assembly in the school’s common area, I hoped (against hope) we were going to see some shark guts or something cool.
Instead, there was some old dude standing in the center of the room, holding a regular piece of paper. We all sat down on the carpet around him, legs crossed. Waiting for the boring session about a dull piece of paper to begin.
“Let’s say we live in a world where ‘corners’ are the most valuable thing in the whole world. Can you imagine that?”
“Yeah, but I can also imagine some crazy dissected shark fetuses.”
“How many corners does this sheet of paper have? Yes? You? Why yes, you are correct! This sheet of paper has four corners!”
“You know what has more corners? Shark teeth. Rows and rows of flesh-ripping corners.”
“Now, what if a friend of yours came up to you and was really, really sad. Sad that she didn’t have a single corner in the whole world.”
“So, my friend is a circle?”
“What would you do? You don’t want to give up one of your corners. Because then you’d have fewer corners. But you feel really bad for your friend. And so, you decide to give her one of your corners.”
Then the guy holds up the sheet of paper. He rips off one of the corners and gives it to a kid in the front row. Suddenly I’m transfixed.
“Oh look, I gave up one of my precious corners. But now I have five corners instead of four. That’s strange, don’t you think?
“Then, another friend asks for a corner because he has none.
“Another one? How can I lose yet another corner?
“But I decide again to give up one of my precious corners.”
Rip. He hands a corner of paper to me.
“And look. Now I have six corners instead of five!”
The guy continues to rip corners off the sheet of paper and hand them out, increasing the number of corners with every rip.
No one had ever explained generosity to me in those terms before. And though I was only 9 years old (and I still haven’t seen a dissected shark), I was a different person from that day forward. Giving stuff away – money, time, possessions, corners, knowledge – always results in getting something greater back in return. The more I give away, the more I receive.
To this day, however, I sympathize with people who hoard their knowledge out of caution or fear. When you are in a dying profession such as woodworking, giving up your hard-won know-how seems like suicide.
But here’s what I’ve found. If the stuff you know is really good – truly excellent – you could end up like Garrett Hack, Christian Becksvoort or David Charlesworth. Amateurs and professionals will pay to learn what you know through classes. Publishers will pay for you to write it down. You might have a tip or trick named after you.
Or you can remain that bitter man in his shop up on the hill. Perhaps you know how to make buttons for attaching tables to their tabletops in one amazing swish on the table saw. But you aren’t performing that trick for just anybody.
It’s a great trick. One that could change the way everyone works in their shop in the entire world. Right? There’s only one way to find out.
The following chapters detail how I build stick chairs. I’ve tried to include every “corner” that I’ve acquired since I first started building these chairs. Also, I’ve tried to give credit to the people who taught me the trick or the operation.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few good tricks and the names of some chairmaking friends who have shared their knowledge along the way. If so, I apologize.
My hope is that you will refine these operations and make them simpler, easier and foolproof. And when someone asks you how you make your sticks or your arms or your legs, you’ll be willing to rip off one of your own corners and give it away.
One of the fun details from “The Stick Chair Book” is the endsheets, the thick papers that bind the book’s hard-cover shell to the printed book block. The endsheets for this book are a heavier-than-normal paper that we have printed with “The Family Tree of Chairs.”
On the endsheet at the front of the book is a drawing of the family tree. The endsheet at the back of the book is a key to the chairs hanging in the tree.
To help us offset the cost of this illustration, we will sell 200 letterpress 16” x 20” posters of the family tree with the key to the tree (as shown in the illustration above). The posters will be numbered and printed on a thick, textured 100-percent cotton paper.
Printing posters via letterpress is expensive, but worth it. When you touch the paper, You can feel the impression left by the plate as it pressed the ink into the cotton. The pricing for this poster is designed to do two things:
Pay for the cost of the illustration and printing the poster. We are not trying to retire to South America on this poster.
Ensure we sell all the posters so I don’t have to stuff them in my pants next winter for added insulation while living beneath the I-75 overpass.
The price will be $30 plus domestic shipping. For international orders, we recommend you investigate a mail-forwarding service in your country. These services are far cheaper and reliable than what we could provide. And they are easy to use. To find one in your country, visit a search engine and search for “parcel forwarding United States” or “mail forwarding United States.”
Because each country has different forwarding services, we don’t have one service we can recommend.
We hope to start selling the poster before August 2021. More details to follow.
After a mere 57 weeks of writing, editing and layout, “The Stick Chair Book” is off to Tennessee to be printed. While our books normally take six to eight weeks to get printed, this one will take 12-14 weeks because of the book’s special paper (more on that in a moment).
Look for the book to start selling in late September or early October. The book is a monster: 632 pages, full-color interior, printed heavy-duty end sheets and all the normal manufacturing touches that are typical for our books. Stiff 98-point cover boards, 100-percent cotton cover cloth and the best binding we can find (sewn, glued and taped to last).
The price will be $49. That’s steep, I know. In fairness, we set the price a little lower than we should have for the book’s manufacturing specs. It should be about $54 to be in line with our other books, but I’m the author, so I am allowed to sell myself a little short.
About the paper: I have been experimenting with using uncoated papers with color printing for a while now. The uncoated stock makes the text easier to read. But it isn’t typical for a book such as this because it makes the photos tricky.
On coated paper, photos reproduce crisply. That’s why museums and coffee-table books use coated paper – it’s all about the images. On uncoated stock, photos can get mushy if they aren’t sharp and have good contrast.
So this book was built from the start with the paper stock I had in mind. But, as a result of all this thinking and experimenting, the paper has to be ordered from the mill. Hence the long wait for the book.
In the coming weeks I’ll share details on the scope of the book plus a couple excerpts.
I am relieved that “The Stick Chair Book” is in someone else’s hands so I can get back to designing Nancy Hiller’s “Shop Tails” book, which is a ton of fun to read. Plus, I get to crop photos of cute animals.
For spelling, capitalization, usage, style, context, out of curiosity:
crinoline marqueters vs marquetarians Archimedes Dukes of Hazzard hindguts pseudopodia dammit vs damn it “is [read the book to find out] from Raising Arizona” Martin Löffelholz mushrooming magic marker wallered out cabal shagreen Kha’s tomb Esperanto boogering whoop-de-do tenterhooks Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area geegaw Liberace chapeau popliteal height vicar cwtsh Shmoo Gouda Old Testament charlatans Castile
I think that list is marketing gold in and of itself but I will add this, despite the fact that Chris hates praise (something he writes about in this book): “The Stick Chair Book,” which was created from a great wealth of research, intimate knowledge and years of experience, is every part of every definition of the word generous. And, it was a joy to read.